In 1997, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and added it to the National Film Registry.
Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is summoned to the mansion of his new client General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). The wealthy retired general wants to resolve gambling debts his daughter, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), owes to bookseller Arthur Gwynn Geiger. As Marlowe is leaving, General Sternwood's older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), stops him. She suspects her father's true motive for calling in a detective is to find his young friend Sean Regan, who had mysteriously disappeared a month earlier.
Marlowe goes to Geiger's rare book shop. Agnes Louzier (Sonia Darrin), Geiger's assistant, minds the shop, which is the front for an illegal operation. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house, where he hears a gunshot and a woman scream. Breaking in, he finds Geiger's body and a drugged Carmen, as well as a hidden camera empty of film. Marlowe picks up Carmen and takes her home. He goes back to the house, but discovers the body is no longer there. Marlowe later learns that the Sternwoods' driver (Owen Taylor) has been found dead, with his car driven off a pier.
Vivian comes to Marlowe's office the next morning with scandalous pictures of Carmen she received with a blackmail demand for the negatives. Marlowe returns to Geiger's bookstore, where they are packing up the store. Marlowe follows a car to the apartment of Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), a gambler who previously blackmailed General Sternwood. He returns to Geiger's house and finds Carmen there. She initially claims ignorance about the murder, then insists Brody killed Geiger. They are interrupted by the owner of the home, small-time gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).
Marlowe follows Vivian to the apartment of Joe Brody, where he finds Brody armed, and Agnes and Vivian initially hiding. They are interrupted by Carmen, who wants her photos. Marlowe keeps the pictures and sends Vivian and Carmen home. Brody admits he was blackmailing both General Sternwood and Vivian, then he is suddenly shot and killed; the assailant flees. Marlowe chases and apprehends Carol Lundgren, Geiger's former driver, who has killed Brody in revenge for Geiger's death, not knowing the chauffeur killed Geiger. He takes Lundgren back to Geiger's house, where Lundgren has returned the body. He calls the police to the house to clear up both the Geiger and Brody murders.
Marlowe visits Mars' casino, where he asks about Regan, who is supposed to have run off with Mars' wife. Mars is evasive and tells Marlowe that Vivian is running up gambling debts. Vivian wins a big wager and then wants Marlowe to take her home. A stooge of Mars' attempts to rob Vivian, but Marlowe intervenes and knocks him out.
While driving home, Marlowe unsuccessfully presses Vivian on her connection with Mars, saying he knows the money she won and subsequent robbery were staged for Marlowe's benefit. Vivian admits to nothing. Marlowe returns home to find a flirtatious Carmen waiting for him. She admits she did not like Regan and mentions that Mars calls Vivian frequently. She attempts to seduce Marlowe, who throws her out of his apartment. The next day, Vivian tells him he can stop looking for Regan; he has been found in Mexico, and she is going to see him. Mars has Marlowe beaten up to emphasize the point.
Harry Jones (Cook), an associate of Brody's who wants to marry Agnes, conveys an offer from her to reveal the location of Mars' wife for $200. When Marlowe goes to meet Jones, Canino, a killer hired by Mars, is there attempting to find Agnes himself. Canino poisons Jones after he discloses Agnes' location (which turns out to be false). Agnes telephones the office where Jones was killed while Marlowe is still there. He arranges to meet her anyway.
Agnes reveals that she has seen Mona Mars near a town called Realito behind an auto repair shop. When he gets there, Marlowe is attacked by Canino. He wakes to find himself tied up, with Mona watching over him. Vivian then comes in. Mona angrily leaves after Marlowe tells her that Mars is a gangster and a killer. Vivian fears for Marlowe's life and frees him, allowing him to get to his car and his gun. She distracts Canino, who is shot by Marlowe. During the drive back to Geiger's bungalow, Vivian unconvincingly tries to claim she killed Sean Regan.
When they arrive, Marlowe calls Mars and lies that he is still in Realito. They arrange to meet at Geiger's house, giving Marlowe ten minutes to prepare. Mars arrives with four men, who set up an ambush outside. Mars enters and is surprised by Marlowe, who holds him at gunpoint. Marlowe reveals he has discerned the truth: Mars has been blackmailing Vivian, claiming that her sister Carmen had killed Regan. As soon as Mars threatens Marlowe with his men outside, Marlowe retaliates by firing shots that just miss Mars, causing him to run outside, where he is mistakenly shot by his own men.
Marlowe then calls the police, telling them that Mars is the one who killed Regan. In the process, he tells them that Vivian helped him with Eddie Mars, exempting her from criminal prosecution, and tells Vivian that her sister Carmen needs psychiatric care.
The Big Sleep is known for its convoluted plot. During filming, allegedly neither the director nor the screenwriters knew whether chauffeur Owen Taylor was murdered or had killed himself. They sent a cable to Chandler, who told a friend in a later letter: "They sent me a wire ... asking me, and dammit I didn't know either".
After its completion, Warner Bros. did not release The Big Sleep until they had turned out a backlog of war-related films. Because the war was ending, the studio feared the public might lose interest in the films, while The Big Sleep's subject was not time-sensitive. Attentive observers will note indications of the film's wartime production, such as period dialogue, pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a woman taxi driver, who says to Bogart, "I'm your girl." Wartime rationing influences the film: dead bodies are called "red points", which referred to wartime meat rationing, and Marlowe's car has a "B" gasoline rationing sticker in the lower passenger-side window, indicating he is essential to the war effort and therefore allowed eight gallons of gasoline per week.
The "Bogie and Bacall" phenomenon, a fascination with the couple that had begun with To Have and Have Not, and that grew during their subsequent marriage, was in full swing by the end of the war. Bacall's agent, Charles K. Feldman, asked that portions of the film be re-shot to capitalize on their chemistry and counteract the negative press Bacall had received for her 1945 performance in Confidential Agent. Producer Jack L. Warner agreed, and new scenes, such as the sexually suggestive racehorse dialogue, were added (scripted by an uncredited Julius Epstein). The re-shot ending featured Peggy Knudsen as Mona Mars because Pat Clark, the originally cast actress, was unavailable. Furthermore, the parts of James Flavin and Thomas E. Jackson were completely eliminated. Because of the two versions created by the re-shooting, there is a substantial difference in content of some twenty minutes between them, although the difference in running time is two minutes. The re-shot, revised The Big Sleep was released on 23 August 1946.
The cinematic release of The Big Sleep is regarded as more successful than the 1945 pre-release version (see below), even though it is confusing and difficult to follow. This may be due in part to the omission of a long conversation between Marlowe and the Los Angeles District Attorney where the facts of the case, thus far, are laid out. Yet movie-star aficionados prefer the 1946 film noir version because they consider the Bogart-Bacall appearances more important than a well-told story. For an example of this point of view, see Roger Ebert's The Great Movies essay on the film.
Novelist Raymond Chandler said Martha Vickers (Carmen) overshadowed Lauren Bacall (Vivian) in their scenes together, which led the producers to delete much of Vickers' performance to enhance Bacall's.
A primary focus of the Hays Office censorship policies was to heavily restrict sexual themes. In the novel, Geiger is selling pornography, then illegal and associated with organized crime, and is also a homosexual having a relationship with Lundgren. Likewise, Carmen is described as being nude in Geiger's house, and later nude and in Marlowe's bed. To ensure the film would be approved by the Hays Office, changes had to be made. Carmen had to be fully dressed, and the pornographic elements could only be alluded to with cryptic references to photographs of Carmen wearing a "Chinese dress" and sitting in a "Chinese chair". The sexual orientation of Geiger and Lundgren goes unmentioned in the film because references to homosexuality were prohibited. The scene of Carmen in Marlowe's bed was replaced with a scene in which she appears, fully dressed, sitting in Marlowe's apartment, when he promptly kicks her out. The scene, shot in 1944, was entirely omitted in the 1945 cut but restored for the 1946 version.
At the time of its 1946 release, Bosley Crowther said the film leaves the viewer "confused and dissatisfied", points out that Bacall is a "dangerous looking female" ..."who still hasn't learned to act" and notes:
The Big Sleep is one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.
Time called the film "wakeful fare for folks who don't care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder" but insists that "the plot's crazily mystifying, nightmare blur is an asset, and only one of many"; it calls Bogart "by far the strongest" of its assets and says Hawks, "even on the chaste screen...manages to get down a good deal of the glamorous tawdriness of big-city low life, discreetly laced with hints of dope addiction, voyeurism and fornication."
In the late 1990s, a pre-release version—director Hawks's original cut—was found in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. That version had been released to the military to play to troops in the South Pacific. Benefactors, led by American magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, raised the money to pay for its restoration, and the original version of The Big Sleep was released in art-house cinemas in 1997 for a short exhibition run, along with a comparative documentary about the cinematic and content differences between Hawks's film noir and the Warner Brothers "movie star" version.
Film critic Roger Ebert, who included the film in his list of "Great Movies", praises the film's writing:
Working from Chandler's original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: it's unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it's so wickedly clever.
Note that the above quote is not specific to the 1945 version but, rather, is in reference to both films. In fact, Ebert preferred the 1946 version. He stated:
The new scenes [of the 1946 version] add a charge to the film that was missing in the 1945 version; this is a case where "studio interference" was exactly the right thing. The only reason to see the earlier version is to go behind the scenes, to learn how the tone and impact of a movie can be altered with just a few scenes... As for the 1946 version that we have been watching all of these years, it is one of the great films noir, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler's ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.
In a 1997 review, Eric Brace of The Washington Post wrote that the 1945 original had a "slightly slower pace than the one released a year later, and a touch less zingy interplay between Bogart and Bacall, but it’s still an unqualified masterpiece."
In 2003, AFI named protagonist Philip Marlowe the 32nd greatest hero in film. Empire magazine added The Big Sleep to their Masterpiece collection in the October 2007 issue. The film placed 202nd on the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll of the greatest films ever made, and also received two directors' votes.
A region-1 (U.S. and Canada) DVD version of The Big Sleep was released in 2000. It is a double-sided, single-layer disc; with the 1946 theatrical version on side-A (114 m), and the 1945 version (116 m) on side-B. The 1946 opening credits appear on both versions, including Peggy Knudsen, who never appears in the original version. Nowhere is the original actress, Pat Clark, ever credited. The DVD also contains a 16-minute, edited version of the 1997 documentary comparing the two versions that is narrated by Robert Gitt, who worked on the restoration of the 1945 version. Film critic Walter Chaw writes of the DVD releases of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not (1944), "The fullscreen transfer of The Big Sleep is generally good but, again, not crystalline, though the grain that afflicts the earlier picture is blissfully absent. Shadow detail is strong—important given that The Big Sleep is oneiric—and while the brightness seems uneven, it's not enough to be terribly distracting. The DD 1.0 audio is just fine."
A Blu-ray DVD was released by Warner Bros. in 2015. It "includes the 1945 cut of the film that was screened for overseas servicemen, running two minutes longer and containing scenes not used in the official release."
A remake starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe was released in 1978. This was the second movie in three years featuring Mitchum as Marlowe. Many have noted that while it was more faithful to the novel, due to lack of restrictions on what could be portrayed on screen, it was far less successful than the original 1946 version with Bogart and Bacall.
Portions of the original release were used in Micmacs, a film released in 2009 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The main character Bazil is seen mouthing words from a French dubbed portion of the film in the beginning and the opening credits are then done in the same style. Portions of Steiner's music from the film are also used along with original music by Raphaël Beau.